Learning Resilience from Dogs

The True Value of Resilience

I met a refugee in 1975, a South Vietnamese teenage girl whose family was granted asylum after the fall of Saigon. Think about it. Having to flee your home with just the clothes on your back and maybe a few valuables or be killed.

No time to say good-bye to friends, neighbors or any other family. Living with fear and uncertainty, dependent on the charity of strangers to build a new life in a strange country with different people.

Different people, different language, difference food, different customs, different religion, different laws, different social mores, different businesses and stores and schools. Different politics. Unable to return home and largely unwelcome in your new home.

I’m not sure why I was thinking about that Vietnamese girl today; but, it reminded me a little of how Millie came to live with us.

Don’t Have to Live Like a Refugee

We brought Millie home on Saturday, 08 April 2017. In the space of 18 days, her life had gone through so many changes it’s difficult to imagine. So many things happen to dogs that they have no say and no control over.

Millie at Vanderpump Dogs
Millie & her daughter, Coco, at Vanderpump Dogs

And, yet, in many cases they are resilient and able to trust the humans in their lives. Unfortunately, we’re not talking about all rescued dogs.

Millie’s journey began on 032217 when she and her siblings, Coco and Coral, were dropped off at the Baldwin Park Animal Shelter with its reputation of being the highest kill shelter in Los Angeles County. A page on Facebook calls this shelter a death camp for dogs.

Baldwin Park Shelter ID
Millie’s Shelter ID

Her journey ended on 040817 when Millie arrived at the last home she will ever need.

Millie's Ride to a New Life
Millie’s Ride to a New Life

So, in 18 days, Millie went from her home to a shelter to a veterinary hospital to a rescue to her new home. In the process, she was permanently separated from her sisters. She was given no choice.

How would you handle that? Could you handle that? Could you learn to trust again? To love again? And, yet, rescued dogs seem do it all the time. Almost every dog I’ve known was eager to trust and love – despite bad things happening to them at the hands of humans.

What can that teach us about Resilience? What is Resilience? The dictionary defines it as the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness. Strength. Flexible. Bouncing back. Pliant. Adaptable. Endurance. Tolerance. And, my weird favorite: Indefatigable.

I will say this about rescued dogs. We, as the pawrents (cute, huh), need to recognize that our pups have been through a traumatic experience and give them love, patience, and time to adjust. On her first night home, Millie looked fearful, uncertain, and a little shell-shocked.

Millie's First Night Home
Millie’s First Night Home

What was going to happen? Would we give her food and water? Would we get mad and give her back? What did we want her to do? Were we kind and loving or would we hit her or just ignore her? Was she allowed on the furniture or the bed?

At first, she slept with one eye open – wanting to trust, but afraid.

Adopted Dog Developing Trust
You’re New but I’m Tired. Can I Trust You?

After a few days, Millie would sleep but suddenly wake up terrified. She’d look up, see me, and fall back asleep. It took weeks for trust to finally (mostly) replace her fear. Consistent love and patience has been winning the day.

Fearful Refugee Millie
Refugee Millie

I started taking Millie to work the very first week – not just to cement our relationship; but, to start building the better life implicitly promised in her adoption. I believe that the reason why most people adopt dogs is because we look at them and say: That dog needs Me. I can give it a better life than the one it knew before.

It didn’t take long before I could walk away (in sight) and come back or ask someone to babysit while I attended a meeting (out of sight), then come back again.

Millie and Miley, Razor USA office dogs
Millie & Miley, Razor USA office dogs

Millie was resilient enough to embrace and enjoy her new life. And, make friends with Miley, another rescued Razor USA Office Dog.

Three Ways Dogs Teach Us About Resilience

1. Live In The Moment

I think the most important thing that dogs can teach us about Resilience is not to fixate on the past. Dogs live in the moment. They don’t regret the past or worry about the future. If we can learn to appreciate and focus on what’s happening in the here and now, we’ll experience a richness of living that other members of the animal kingdom enjoy (Cesar Milan, 2009).

I’m not a big Dog Whisperer fan; but, he hits this one out of the park.

Buster Keaton Clock
Buster Keaton Clock

Living in the moment means letting go of pressure, fear, worry, and other emotions that prevent us from fully experiencing and enjoying our lives RIGHT NOW! Living in the moment is a source of gratitude and appreciation (Newman, 2016).

2. Never, Ever, Ever Quit

Have you ever seen a three-legged dog running like every other dog also has three legs? Or a blind dog? This is Simon and he’s my favorite blind Pug in the world. I don’t recall when he lost his eyes – maybe seven years ago. He comes to just about every Los Angeles Pug Meetup and has a blast! He doesn’t walk around like a blind Pug. He just walks around like a Pug.

Simon the Blind Pug
Simon at the Bonyard LA Pug Meetup_052017

When Simon lost his eyes, he had to either adjust and use his other senses to compensate or sit in a corner and mope. So, he adjusted. He uses a dog door at home just like my dogs use one at our house. He can climb stairs, just like my dogs. He explores the dog park, just like mine do.

Dogs can teach us that, when unthinkably bad things happen, we don’t have to stop participating in life and those bad things certainly should never be allowed to define us.

We can improvise, adapt, and overcome! My children grew up hearing this line by Clint Eastwood in Heartbreak Ridge every time they felt overwhelmed by a problem.

3. Keep a Positive Attitude

Attitude is everything. Attitude is a settled way of thinking or feeling about someone or something, typically one that is reflected in a person’s behavior. I think the most important part of that definition is that attitude is typically reflected in behavior.

One thing I am absolutely sure of is that I have never seen a pessimistic dog. All the dogs in my experience were optimists though-and-through. People have bad attitudes. Dogs, eh, not so much.

My attitude determines what I think. My thoughts determine my actions. My actions inform the world who I am. That, I believe, is what Garth Stein (The Art of Racing in the Rain) is talking about:

That which we manifest is before us; we are the creators of our own destiny. Be it through intention or ignorance, our successes and our failures have been brought on by none other than ourselves.

Do I try to find the best in situations or am I a chronic complainer? Do I try to change my life for the better or do I seem to be happier moaning about how bad things are? When bad things happen, do we get stuck there; or, do we decide not to let those bad things define who we are?

What About Your Dog?

One True Value of Dogs is Resilience and I’ve listed three ways that dogs can teach us that trait. How about you? In what ways have you seen resilience in dogs? How have they inspired you by overcoming the bad things that happen to people and animals alike?

Hurricane Harvey is a real-life, current events example of how bad things happen to us all – people and dogs. Both people and their pets have been separated from their homes, the lives they knew – and from each other.

Hurricane Harvey Man and Dog
Hurricane Harvey Man & Dog

~ George

Tell your dogs every day that you love them. They won’t understand the words, but the sound of your voice is their music. And, telling them every day will reinforce those positive feelings when they pee on the rug.

As always, if you’re writing a paper for Mr. Waznewski’s English class, here are a few sources that might help.

Cole, L. (11 Dec 2013). The five “personality types of dogs.” Retrieved from: https://www.canidae.com/blog/2013/12/the-five-personality-types-of-dogs/

Milan, C. (2009). Act like a dog! Retrieved from: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/543739354987529401

Newman, S. (2016). What dogs can teach us about living in the moment. Retrieved from: https://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2016/01/27/what-dogs-can-teach-us-about-living-in-the-moment/

Stein. G. (2008). The art of racing in the rain. HarperCollins.